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Monday, Jan 7, 2008



As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This time out: It’s a Mondo, Mondo, Mondo, Mondo, World



When they first hit video stores in the early 1980s, people were aghast and intrigued. Could it be? Did these films really live up to their legend? Was it possible that we’d actually get to see human atrocities like autopsies and actual murders in our very own living rooms? Indeed, that was the promise offered by Faces of Death, a soon-to-be series of on-the-cheap video collections that promised vile vignettes of burn victims, police surveillance footage and occasionally “staged” sagas of people being mauled by animals or killed in accidents. Incredibly popular amongst teens who used the tapes as weekend sleepover double dare fodder, Faces spawned a set of sequels and imitators that created a cash filled coffer of bad publicity.


Sadly, all Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi could do was sit back and watch as their artistic statements about the diversity of the world were lumped together with bad dub copies of psychopaths committing suicide and catastrophe victims missing various limbs. These two Italian innovators were definitely responsible for the foundational films that started and popularized the whole “shock cinema” or “Mondo” genre, and compared to what came directly after it, Mondo Cane stands as a monumental cinematic statement. But with any success comes speculation, and no one was better at ripping off revenue streams than the exploitationers. Names like Harry Novak instantly saw the mock doc writing on the wall, and dreamed up their own globe trotting gratuity. The results were instant crap-ssics like Mondo Bizzaro, Mondo Freudo, Mondo Mod, and The Hippie Revolt.


Viewed today as both tawdry time capsules and copycat capitalization, the Mondo movies are indeed a compelling, complicated experience. Most rely on nudity to shill their swill, while others can get rather nasty (animal lovers beware - there are no ASPCA warnings here). For the most part, however, these films traded on the pre-satellite insularity of the world, exposing ‘60s citizens to things we post-millennial mooks see Anthony Bourdain do every week on No Reservations. In some ways, the Mondo movies were the first foray into understanding other parts of the world - the rites and rituals, the odd customs and even stranger traditions. They may seem silly today, but forty years ago this was eye opening stuff.


Take the first film under consideration. A great many things make up the wacky world circa 1966. Like Japanese massage parlors where, for 2000 yen, topless Geisha babes will scramble eggs on your sunken, pallid chest (gasp!). Or how about the fickle fashion fiascos of Fredrick’s of Hollywood, the only lingerie shop in America that treats the female breast like a cast iron torpedo, requiring a flamboyant metal framed clothing hanger to properly house it (eep!), Let’s not forget the odd exaltation of peeping on persons as they change clothes in an underwear store (shudder!). And who could forget the unbelievable enchantment and mystery of a bunch of suburban housewives painting nude canvas studies of a beefy black man (shock!).


Yes, all of these mischievous misdeeds and many more—like a man who collects oil paintings of naked women (the cad!), the freaked out art photographer who fancies himself a better go-go dancer than his nude model, or a scene from a play highlighting the Nazi’s interpersonal skills with a bullwhip - help to round out and explain the reckless reality of our pre-Nixon era global detente. Add to this the everyday details of a woodoo witch doctor doing the wicked watusi (ho hum), creepy kids on spring break (bad news—even in 1966 they were incoherent retards), and a real live illegal Arabian slave auction (zzzzz), and you have, as Topo Gigio would say, a true look at our way-out, wacky Mondo Bizarro, Mr. Eddie. [Bat creepy puppet eyes]


But wait - it gets better. The second feature finds old Sigmund getting his fifteen microns of post-mortem motion picture fame as we wander through a Freudian world of prolonged toplessness. We witness women bare-chested on the beaches of Malibu and nightclubs along the Sunset Strip (scandal!). Dentally challenged strippers and hookers drop shirt in merry, murky old England (bloody ‘ell!). Another round of Asian actresses unfurl their upper torso lotus leaves for a strange exotic dance/bondage show (um…), and balding, profusely sweaty businessmen eat cheese sandwiches and drink 7-Up (yum! yum!) in an “upper class restaurant” that features a revealing ladies’ linen show (hmm…). Even more foreign flesh is exposed in a sleazy Tijuana nightclub where men pay plenty pesos to sample the in-house taco.


And just to guarantee that we haven’t forgotten about the fiend factor in this trip around the unclothed universe we live in, there is a horribly blasphemous Black Mass featuring a practicing witch’s unbelievably possessed breasts (egad!) and a virgin sacrifice that is neither (huh?). Heck, they even throw in teenagers cruising the Sunset Strip ala American Graffiti (idgits!). But leave it, once again, to those international party people, the Germans, to show us a good time by having their frail fraulines slap each other like stormtroppers in a big thick pool of decidedly “blond” looking mud (yavol!). Yes, it is one crazy, prefabricated Mondo Freudo that we live in.


If those descriptions haven’t convinced you, here’s the dilemma with Mondo Bizarro, Mondo Freudo, and frankly, any of the Mondo style movies that have been made in the last 30 years. Your enjoyment of these faux photologues will be directly linked to the amount of acceptance you give them. You either buy the artifice, which means you will believe in the “behind the scenes,” “candid camera,” “people caught in the act of being perverted” approach offered, and spend several minutes in mild shock as “real” sexual sensationalism unfolds before your beleaguered eyes. Or, you could see through the setups and find the whole “actually happened” pretense hilarious, in which case you giggle along with the staged sin shows and slave auctions and wonder if the early ‘60s audience (mostly men in raincoats) took time from their personal “fiddling” to notice how boldly fake most all of these movies are.


Perhaps you will be like the majority, and find Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo exceptionally trashy and tasteless. Even without the usual standard animal mutilation and gore footage, the notion of spying on hapless women as they change clothes or poor Mexican girls (even if they are obviously off-market models) being sold into slavery looks more sleazy than spicy. As the forerunner to the far more reprehensible Faces of Death and Caught on Tape category of exploitation exposés, these innocent attempts at shirking indecency laws are like visual versions of a double dare. Here, fortunately, you only have to put up with distorted mammaries and the occasional unfortunate mouth of teeth.


Of the two, Mondo Bizarro is the better film if only because it broadens its focus to feature more “outrageous” incidents beyond women of many races exposing their tits. The aforementioned yoga master at least provides some philosophical bric-a-brac to support his sideshow geek demonstrations. And we do occasionally move beyond the boob to see a couple of male hustlers chasing tricks and critical deliberations on modern art. The overall tone of Bizarro is light and fluffy, not taking itself or its subjects too seriously. The film finally bogs down in the far too detailed description/depiction of the trials and tribulations the filmmakers experienced to capture, on camera, a supposed Middle Eastern slave auction. A close look will tell you the nearest many of these “Arabs” got to a “desert” was a sand trap at Pebble Beach. Most of these nomads are as Lebanese as Peter O’Toole.


Freudo, on the other hand, is determined to be a more serious, sensual escape behind the seemingly sanguine outer layer of society and into its reprobate nether regions. Candidly, this film is exactly like one of Uncle Siggy’s obsessive phases. It is totally taken with the teat. The female fleshbag in its many (mal) forms is showcased here so often and up close that you’d swear you were watching La Leche League: The Movie. Eventually, the film implodes under the burden of its repetitiveness, so that by the time we reach the end we feel like we’ve seen half the planet’s population in the altogether. Both Mondo Bizarro and Mondo Freudo suffer from a strange sameness syndrome. Even vignettes proclaiming to be odd and unique have a familiar, formulaic feel to them.


Things weren’t much better for those fixated on the counterculture shock wave sweeping the US. Novak in particular decided that young people with their freedom and flowing locks needed reprimanding and pronto. So he dreamed up the one two sucker punch of Mondo Mod and The Hippie Revolt. You see, back when the moon was in the seventh house, before the Summer of Love melted into a winter of bitter discontent for the US, these two quasi-documentaries claimed to expose the fun, fads, and flaws inside the growing youth coup.


Mondo‘s various “groovy happenings” include surfing, drug use, a really terrible band called The Group and, what appears to be, the scandal of staying out late. The Hippie Revolt is told in the words of the “youth” themselves, and proves just how much brain damage hash brownies can cause. We witness love-ins, freak outs, and a visit to the Manson family’s understudies who smoke weed and blather on, philosophically, at a commune. Add some more nude body painting and a wild sex crazed hippie pot party (to make the target audience of all white middle aged Republican males happy) and you too will be waiting for Elton John and disco to hurry up and take over already.


Novak knows demographics, and both films reflect this pro-establishment, pro-skin favoritism. While the majority of the footage is exciting (and great to look at: future Academy Award winners Vilmos Zigmond and Lazlo Kovacs worked on Mod), the narrative tone is mocking, making surfing sound suicidal, karate insane, and declarations against war and racism anti-American. Nowhere is this more evident than in the several staged/real events that were supposedly being captured “as they happened.” The aforementioned orgiastic pot party is so phony it would make Holden Caulfield bleed internally.


The biker gang scenes achieve angles and actions that no “hidden” camera could ever capture. Besides, the riders look like your Uncle Gary playing dress-up with several of his more, shall we say, leather intensive friends. Oddly enough, for a film that wants to ridicule out of control young people, it’s the protest scenes in Revolt that strike the truest chord. Nothing, not the cheesy voice-overs or the incoherent drone of blissed-out bong suckers, can undermine the historical importance of these moments, no matter how hard Novak tries.


Unlike the brilliant docu-deconstructionism of Jacopetti and Prosperi, these films prove that Mondo eventually became a catch-all tag for something akin to gratuitous grindhouse anthologies. Find an unsigned rock act. Get some girls to take off their clothes. Break out the Dutch Boy and - VIOLA! - who have a filmable slice of scandalous life. Nowhere is there an attempt to contextualize the material, to argue why it’s important to understand an African tribes reliance on ancient ceremony or how sketchy sustenance like bugs and insects derived from need and endless suffering. No, Mondo meant a recognizable name, a quick buck, and the old school bait and switch. Then, there was some promise of witnessing the perversion inherent in our planet. Today, it’s nothing but smutty smoke and mirrors.


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Sunday, Jan 6, 2008


I’m not sure if other film critics have it, but I know I do. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but then again, I can’t imagine that it’s completely my fault. I’ve met other people outside the journalistic community who definitely possess it, and for the most part, they have learned to live with. I too have discovered a way to balance its oppressive, off putting aspects with the rigors of what I do, but it can be a burden of unfathomable difficulty. You see, I suffer from what’s known as ‘The 10 Minute Curse’. What this means is that, in 99 cases out of 100, I can tell if a movie is going to excel or suck within the first 10 minutes of it unraveling on the screen (theatrical or TV). It almost never fails, and it really is a pain in the as…aesthetic.


From what I understand, it comes from a lifetime as a film fan coupled with a sudden burial in and barrage of the artform. For the last six years, I’ve spent my days mired in movies. Some weeks I’ve watched up to a dozen DVDs, and during awards season, it’s not unusual to attend seven or eight screenings in a scant five days. Conservatively, I’ve seen about 3000 films in a little less than 67 months. Doing the math, that’s just under 45 per month. Using the standard 4.5 week measure, that comes to about nine every seven days. Argh! And when you add in my college days, when going to the student union and catching a double feature was a daily doped up occurrence, along with the rest of my Cinephile status, I’m a perfect candidate for time tainting, as we sufferers sometimes call it.


You see, the brain is a baffling thing. It makes connections and sees similarities and synchronicity even when our conscious mind misses it. Over the course of a couple of decades, the mental chemistry gets shifted, creating a kind of celluloid dementia. It can happen with music too - I have an old friend who’s been part of the business for decades, and his curse is so refined now that he can today tell if a song is a hit or a miss in under 15 SECONDS. Because film contains facets that can temporarily circumvent your curse, 10 stands as most fatalities’ median mark. For some, it can take much longer. Those with times under have been known to freak out and find solace in a life spent in quiet contemplation - or in a sanitarium straight jacket.


In essence, the menacing motion picture mojo works like this: you sit down in your favorite recliner/assigned stadium seat, favorite beverage/overpriced theater snack close at hand. As the previews pass by and the anticipation draws near, the synapses in your head start switching over into preprogrammed predetermination mode. An actor’s name can trigger it, as can a specific genre (horror, CGI kid flick), or storyline (dysfunctional family attempts to reconcile). Soon, before the first image has been viewed, the mind’s eye is mirroring a hundred previous viewings and thousands of similar titles. As the opening unfolds, conclusions are being calculated, similarities are being sought out and shelved, and levels of predictability and possibility are ordered, defined, and prepped.


Then, right around 9:59, it strikes. It’s a sad, sinking feeling - even if the final formulation indicates that the movie is going to turn out good, or even great. Part of the magic of movies lies in the ability to be surprised and swept up in a world where you’re unsure of what’s going to happen next. But the 10 Minute Curse robs one of said discovery. It’s like a little voice in the back of your head whispering “I told you so” over and over again - and you don’t even know what the comments are referencing, at least not yet. Then, when the film finishes and ephemeral opinion proves correct, part of the pleasure simply dies inside you.


Let’s take a couple of recent examples. As I settled in my seat waiting for National Treasure: Book of Secrets to start, I recalled my minor appreciation of the original film. While Nicholas Cage has always been an odd action star choice, the historical hooey passing itself off as modern archeological swagger had some relatively enjoyable moments. But the sequel - silly, stagy, and slapped together in a manner that simply screams “created by committee” had me convinced it was going to underachieve from the moment Riley lost his beloved red Jaguar - and there was still over two hours to go. Imagine the distress of sitting in a theater, seats filled with entitlement minded freebie ticket holders, knowing that nothing you could do would improve the unspooling spectacle before you.


On the other hand, there’s been a lot of jawing about Juno, especially among critics who feel the film is all tween/You Tube pseudo Tarantino preening. Many of the arguments, while slightly overwrought, remain well reasoned and quite passionate. So approaching the studio provided Oscar screener with some trepidation, I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed it - and at the moment when a pro-Life protester convinced our heroine that fetuses have fingernails, I realized that the haters were hopelessly misguided. While not the major Oscar fodder championed by any far stretch of the imagination, Ellen Page’s excellent work and Jason Reitman’s whipsmart direction made the experience evocative and memorable. The only downside was that I knew this was going to be the case 80 minutes before the final verdict came in.


I feel lucky that this is a recent occurrence. Back when Miller’s Crossing first floored me, or I recognized 2001: A Space Odyssey as the greatest film of all time, it would have been horrible to have those epiphanies marred by the curse. Of course, it would have been nice to be so cosmically clued in when certified stink bombs like Battlefield Earth or Batman and Robin came calling. On the one hand, being bothered by such a stigma can be conceived as a blessing in disguise. In an environment where deadlines loom, workloads double, and demands battle expectations for continued career viability, knowing a turkey within a scant few scenes seems a critical godsend. Yet, in order to be completely fair, to make sure one’s not relying on the otherworldly guidance time and time again, a reviewer has to reject the curse and work twice as hard to combat it’s influence. A good critic, that is.


Take the case of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. This nauseating little cinematic turd, based (badly) on the real life case of tortured and murdered teen Sylvia Likens (killed by her certifiably psycho guardian Gertrude Baniszewski) tries to get away with an air of amiable nostalgia countered with hints at the horrors beneath the surface. It wants to be Blue Velvet with a sickening swatch of pedophilia soiling the storyline. Viewed on DVD, it tricked the curse for a while, keeping the final outcome in question for more than 80 complicated minutes. But then, when the final act proved nothing more than one adult’s uninspired mea culpa and callous cry for attention, the obvious heinousness heretofore hidden landed like a big steamy motion picture pile. It practically made you ashamed for previously drinking the celluloid Kool-Aid.


Then there’s Joshua. Your typical evil kid doing horrendous things that only the post-modern Bad Seed could possibly conceive of thriller, the slow pacing and deliberate plotting from co-writer/director George Ratliff and scribe David Gilbert threaten to invert and implode on viewer contact. As the movie meanders, dragging both logic and intelligence through the brazen brat genre run of the mill, we can’t imagine that anything good will result. The curse clamors for attention, already rendering its decision, and yet the film won’t finalize the assessment. Then the title character launches into a haunting little last minute ditty, complete with condemning lyrics and a montage loaded with exposed secrets, and the blithering blight disappears. Suddenly, the already acknowledged dullness transforms into a begrudging admiration, and a flop finds a way to save itself.


Still, it’s important to note that this really is not a benefit, nor is it ever used as an unearned shortcut to getting one’s ever present work done. It is truly a curse, a stinging little personal pain that permeates the pleasure of cinema and robs the sufferer of the medium’s majesty. It’s like never getting comfortable in your seat, or that constant car alarm that goes off while the neighbors are away. You hope it doesn’t happen, and yet it never really leaves. Sure, some films (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood) are so rock solid that it doesn’t feel the need to arrive, while others announce their awfulness (Norbit, Shrek the Third) so early that a hasty conclusion actually acts like an afterthought. So remember, the next time you’re grooving on your favorite film and the DVD counter clicks over onto 10:00, somewhere in the artform universe, there is a critic enjoying the very same title - and their fun has just fallen into formula. Consider yourself lucky.


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Saturday, Jan 5, 2008


His is not an unusual story. As an artist of color working within a medium not necessarily friendly to same, Charles Burnett had a decidedly uphill battle to become a filmmaker. As with many like minded ‘60s students, he turned his 16mm UCLA thesis focusing on the troubled Watts section of Los Angeles into an unusually beautiful and moving meditation on race and the rejection of the American dream. Hoping to see it released, he failed to realize that the many songs included as part of the overall poetry were unsecured. The costs of such rights issues made distribution impossible, and aside from a few festival screenings, his efforts wound up the stuff of legend. He eventually went on to work in Tinsel Town, delivering outsider works like 1990’s To Sleep with Anger and 2000’s Finding Buck McHenry.


Yet it was the mythic movie from his youth that continued to define his reputation. Many wondered if it was as good as people claimed, while others questioned the reasons why it hadn’t been remastered and restored - especially in these days of ‘everything on digital’ DVD domination. Thanks to Milestone Films, and Burnett’s alma mater, the $150,000 needed to settle the soundtrack matter was raised, and a new 35mm pristine print was struck. Suddenly, the once lost film was found - and over the course of the last few months, it has emerged as a considered classic. It sits on many ‘Best of’ lists, and the National Film Registry has selected it for preservation. Even better, Milestone has stepped up and created a seminal home video package that allows the context of the film’s creation, as well as other examples of the director’s work, to fully come to the fore.


Dark and documentary like, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is a window into a world few have ever experienced, let alone knew existed. Capturing the look, the feel, and the sense of poverty like no other film before it, it represents a remarkable bit of artistic perspective. With no real narrative to speak of and characters drawn directly out of unrelenting real life, it stands as a startlingly authentic experiment, and a true dramatic testament to the human spirit. While the era is clearly the ‘70s, and Burnett relies on old school blues and soul as a Greek Chorus score, this is a timeless examination of life along the fringes of normative society, a peek into situations stark and circumstances unfathomable. When a slaughterhouse seems more inviting than a shabby family home, you recognize the cultural commentary is nothing short of potent.

We follow Stan, a sad man who seems lost within his trials to merely survive. He is the title entity, a man working in an abattoir helping with any and all butchering tasks. His pretty wife tolerates his many moods, but wonders why a still vital and virile male won’t take her to bed regularly. When a friend suggests he has no hope, he decides to fix up his wreck of a car by buying a used engine. When local lowlifes try to talk him into crime, his better half abruptly steps in to remove the unlawful influence. In the meantime, the couple’s two kids wander aimlessly through an inner city landscape where fake violence meets the real thing on a regular basis. It’s an existence sketched out in government indifference, a place where comfort - when it comes - arrives in short, senseless bursts always capable of collapsing in on itself.


Treating everything viewed - animal slaughter, childhood roughhousing, slow grind passion, inappropriate advances - in a manner which offers little in the way of interpretation or judgment, Killer of Sheep is a very challenging experience. It asks us, the audience, to step into a reality that seems unreal, and sympathize with people and plights that appear alien to our smug, suburban eyes. Without being confrontational or controversial, without resorting to the kind of callous stereotyping that makes ethnicity charges stories so suspect, we find grace inside the dark, dire ghetto. You can see that Burnett believes in his intentions. The movie never forces itself into situations that demand responses. Instead, we let the casual daily drone wash over us, the arguments over money and opportunity, status and stumbling blocks becoming nothing but a background buzz to the discontent surrounding the characters. 


Yet you can also feel the director’s education based desire to reference past masters. While the neo-realists of Italy were far more focused on telling a story, Burnett uses the same monochrome pastiche to capture his almost amateurish moments. Real life actors Henry Sanders (as Stan) and Kaycee Moore (as his wife) are surrounded by locals and available friends, their lack of pretense apparent in every sped up line reading, every slight smile while staring straight into the camera. The camerawork is either purposefully static or unintentionally handheld, the lens capturing glimpses of faces and facets that we are perhaps not supposed to see. There is a vague voyeuristic quality to what Burnett offers, the viewer as uncomfortable witness to an unsatisfied wife, children caught in mindless cruelty, and a man downbeat and desperate.


The DVD presentation allows Burnett to put his efforts here into perspective, and the accompanying commentary track (with scholar Richard Pena) offers a great deal of information and insight. But even more startling are the short films offered as complements to the director’s oeuvre. Dealing with subjects as varied as a dying horse and Hurricane Katrina, they argue for an artist quite capable of staying within the accepted framework of the medium in order to make his points. This is especially true of the supplemental long form film offered - 1983’s My Brothers Wedding (it focuses on the various high and lows that occur as a disjointed family prepares for one sibling’s suspect nuptials). Presented in two different versions - the original 118 min cut and a new, 90 min director’s redux - we see Burnett working in a more friendly and fast paced style, while still incorporating many of the more contemplative touches that made Sheep such a success.


In retrospect, this is the kind of arcane aesthetic pronouncement that could only have survived in the ‘70s. Today, even in the most broadminded of production realms, Burnett would be viewed as a maverick making difficult cinema in far too easy going filmmaking times. This doesn’t distract from Killer of Sheep‘s amazing merits, just forewarns those coming in unprepared and expecting some kind of mainstream motion picture. This is a vision as yet untainted by the need to sell out and sell through. We can thank Milestone and the many supporters of this unusual, unmatched movie for making sure future generations can enjoy its undeniable masterwork. It makes Burnett’s struggles seem less like the story and more like a fabulous, unfathomable footnote. Once you’ve seen this film, you realize that’s exactly where said struggle belongs.


 


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Friday, Jan 4, 2008


Call it reverse retro - something so endemic of its time or place that it transcends nostalgia to become a definitive cultural statement. Every medium has them - from the brazen blaxploitation films of the ‘70s to the sublime synth pop of the ‘80s. No other era has as many ethereal examples as the ‘60s however. As a decade noted for its artistic reinterpretation, where nothing was sacred and everything was subverted, old war horses and sacred cows got the aesthetic agriculture taken out of them. Nowhere was this truer than in television, where sitcoms and the writers who created them tried to undue years of formulaic funny business. From monsters to musicians, it was a creative temperament ripe for the reimagining.


One of the best one’s ever to fool the format was Get Smart. Conceived by comic legends Mel Brooks and Buck Henry as part of a one off speculative deal, this silly spy spoof featuring the world’s dumbest secret agent lasted five fascinating years. It also rewrote the entire decade’s agenda on how serious subject matter could be mimicked and mocked. Now available is an exemplary complete series set from Time Life DVD (this is how all TV shows should be handled), revisiting this emblematic entertainment proves the backwards revisionism theory. It is less like a trip down memory lane and more like the discovery of the perfect counterculture confection.


For those unfamiliar with the show (it’s been in and out of reruns for quite a while), the set up is simple. Maxwell Smart, codenamed 86, works for CONTROL, a government intelligence organization battling the forces of geo-political complexity and international evil. Answering to the tough but genial Chief, and typically paired with leggy female cohort 99 (whose name is never revealed), the duo regularly take on KAOS, a band of nogooniks led by Mr. Big and overseen by Vice President of Public Relations and Terror, Siegfried. Though they are sworn enemies, Max and his nemesis enjoy a surreal mutual admiration society. Oddly enough, there is respect and honor among these stunted secret agents. Along with the standard menagerie of villains, sidekicks, and one-off helpers, we meet unlucky android Agent Hymie, the mysterious Agent 13 (who communicates with CONTROL from unusual locations like lockers and mailboxes), and Fang, the bureau’s asthmatic dog.


Over the course of 138 episodes and two networks (it originally began airing on NBC, but ended its run with a single season switch over to CBS), the spy vs. spy tomfoolery used gadgets, goofiness, and some good natured lampoonery to create its weekly 26 minutes of mirth. Some of the most memorable visual jokes included the top secret Cone of Silence (a device which supposedly allowed conversations to go unheard), Max’s classic shoe phone (complete with heel receiver and instep dialer), and various incognito guns. The numerous James Bond knock-offs, usually applied more for comic than crime relief, became iconic for series’ devotees. They also helped the show successfully focus as much on the actual genre being tweaked as well as jibing to the archetypes within it.


Thanks to Sean Connery and his amazing machismo magic, the ‘60s was awash in kitsch crazy spy stuff. Film was constantly on the make for another franchise icon (Flint, Helm) while TV also found a wealth of espionage angles with dramas like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible. Get Smart was one of the few attempts at bridging the increasing clichés already forming to manufacture something original inside the formulaic and familiar. As one follows the episodes offered, through first season highlights like “Satan Place” and “Survival of the Fattest” to last act offerings like “Apes of Rath” and “And Baby Makes Four”, we see the growth of the characters, the creation of network mandated narrative constants, and the development of seminal series catchphrases - “missed it by that much” and “would you believe…?” - that became cult fad fodder.


To call the show uneven would be stating the obvious. Fans can probably pinpoint the moment the ingenuity became to wane - perhaps with the required wedding of 86 and 99, or the last season decision to have them procreate. But for the most part, the inventive internal aspects of the series, as well as the external elements of the experience (changing social dynamics, growing political unrest) keep it fresh and original. While it’s impossible to evaluate all fives series and 138 episodes, it’s clear that, as an example of TV’s attempts at battling cinema’s anti-studio system rebirth, Brooks and Henry were on the right track.


This is pop art parody of the highest order, a veritable trip back in time to the slapstick slickness of the swinging ‘60s. The look of the show combines conservative government bureaucratics with hipster bachelor padding. Everyone smokes, and they smoke A LOT. Sunglasses are statements of the sinister and the suave, while 99’s dresses run the dramatic gamut from Carnaby Street minis to natty New York maxis. Without directly addressing the ever-changing face of the era, we get hints of hippies, lots of Cold War mongering, the slightest slip into psychedelia (the sets are always amazing), and enough pseudo slick lingo to fill the mind of an amiable and impressionable audience.


The acting, of course, made the experience and it remains, without a doubt, exceptional. Though he was hired mostly due to an outstanding contract he had with the network, Don Adams proved to be an invaluable piece of the puzzle. He literally steals every scene he is in as Smart, whiny wisenheimer voice hiding an equally wimpy work ethic. Using some of the material he honed as part of his stand up routine, and a great deal of improvisational grace, he became the satiric standard bearer for most of the decade’s sprawling spy fascination. In fact, it’s safe to say that without Maxwell Smart, the uneven farce of Casino Royale would never have been fathomable, let alone possible.


Equally alluring in wildly different ways is Barbara Feldon as 99. As enigmatic as she is predictable (her crush on 86 is evident from the earliest episodes), the character cuts a swatch that balances out much of Get Smart‘s surreality. Like the calming centering of a constantly out of whack storm, she comes across as sexy and smart, easily understood and never off the handle. Indeed, if Feldon had been given a more prominent role, she could have turned the show semi-serious, which would never have worked. But thanks to her classiness, her deft comic timing (she was great with a joke as well), and the chemistry she shared with everyone from Adams to Edward Platt (as the omniscient Chief) she transforms the obligatory Emma Peel eye candy role into something quite special.


Indeed, that’s the best way to describe Get Smart in general. It’s an amalgamation of incongruous elements that shouldn’t really work together yet somehow, do. It’s the perfect incorporation of the dumb with the discerning, the improbable with the imaginative. Of course, it takes tons of talent to pull this off, and from Brooks and Henry in the background (between them, both wrote dozens of episodes) to standard day to day production players like scribes Chris Hayward, Leonard Stern, and Arne Sultan, this was unconventional TV from standard boob tube scribblers. Add in the fringe turns, the wondrous non conformity in disguise of Dick Gautier as Hymie, the various nefarious villains played to perfection by such stalwarts as Bernie Kopell (Siegfried), King Moody (Shtarker), and Milton Selzer (as double agent Parker), and the various guest turns (Johnny Carson, James Caan, Don Rickles), and you’ve got a concept with enough creativity to carry it through even the toughest times.

As for the tremendous Time Life DVD compendium, it’s a veritable treasure trove of discoverable delights. Divided up by season, both Brooks and Henry add a commentary to the pilot, while Feldon offers her thoughts on Episode 17 - “Kisses for Kaos”. Disc five of the first set contains nothing but extras, including interviews, promos, TV appearances, reunion footage, bloopers, a documentary, and an interactive feature. It’s the same packaging paradigm that is carried over onto each additional season in the box. Other highlights include 1967 Emmy Broadcast material, NBC memos (both from Season 2), commercials, current cast interviews (Season 4) and a memorial to the late Don Adams (Season 5). Each collection also contains a booklet providing context and scope, and the transfers in general are terrific - bright, colorful and loaded with era-defining detail.


Oddly enough, Smart was one of the few ‘60s shows that did not translate well when it was inevitably updated. The 1980 big screen version, entitled The Nude Bomb, was a major critical and box office disappointment, while the 1989 TV movie Get Smart, Again! was slightly more winning. It led to an attempted revamp by Fox with Andy Dick as Smart and 99’s son (it lasted seven uneven episodes). Now, Hollywood has again come calling, placing comedic flavor of the moment Steve Carell in the role of Smart, with Anne Hathaway as 99, and Alan Arkin as The Chief. The preview trailer tells little about how successful this update will be. The goofiness is there, but the original Adams/Feldon spark appears absent. Until then, we have this remarkable overview to remind us of how the right combination of ability and anarchy can merge to form an almost effortless entertainment. Like other examples from the time - The Addams Family, for example - the sum of Get Smart is uniquely equal to its many magnificent parts. It remains a seminal spy spoof sitcom. 


 


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Thursday, Jan 3, 2008

When we think about soundtracks, it is impossible to avoid bringing up the names of the giants in the field: Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, and Bernard Herrmann, to name just a few. Unfortunately, such a bias tends to affect our listening habits, and we often ignore the new voices that emerge from the film music community every year. And this is a real shame, as truly innovative and high quality scores have recently been made by newcomers who may lack the fame, but have the talent necessary to create blissful music. In an attempt to correct this situation, the current installment of Surround Sound will review some recently released soundtracks that feature sublime music made by relatively new talents.


30 Days of Night - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]


In spite of its detractors, the cinematic adaptation of the groundbreaking graphic novel by Steve Niles proved to be an entertaining and intriguing horror flick. Directed with a good sense of pace by David Slade, 30 Days of Night offers a truly nightmarish situation. As the title suggests, in the small town of Barrow, Alaska, the longest night of winter lasts 30 days (in reality it takes 65 days, but I guess Niles thought that 30 made a better title than 65). This long period of time without sunlight is used by a clan of vicious vampires to kill and feed with equal gusto. As a handful of survivors manage to take shelter in a claustrophobic attic, the movie turns suspenseful and ominous. Featuring gruesome visual effects, an absorbing storyline, awesome cinematography, and decent characterization, 30 Days of Night is one of the best horror offerings released in 2007.

The creepy music for 30 Days of Night by Brian Reitzell nicely fits the onscreen horrors and mayhem. Even though this is only Reitzell’s third score (following Friday Night Lights [2004] and Stranger than Fiction [2006]), he magnificently knows how to provide an aural atmosphere that will support the development of the narrative. A former drummer with rock bands, Reitzell followed a truly unusual approach to create the eerie score for 30 Days of Night. Indeed, besides using traditional digital instrumentations, Reitzell produced unsettling noises by manipulating a fast spinning pottery wheel that he bought at the local Home Depot. The result is a cacophonic, non-melodic musical soundscape that aptly captures the violence, otherness, and gruesomeness of the terrifying blood suckers. It may not have sophisticated compositions, instrumentations, or musical structure, but nevertheless the soundtrack of 30 Days of Night remains original and effective.


In the Shadow of the Moon - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]


A beautiful documentary that showcases probably the greatest achievement of mankind, In the Shadow of the Moon narrates the dramatic events that culminated with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the lunar surface. The film not only uses stunning materials from NASA archives, but it also brings together some of the astronauts that participated in the Apollo program. Some of the legendary astronauts featured in the movie include Jim Lovell (Apollo 8 and 13), Dave Scott (Apollo 9 and 15), Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), and Gene Cernan (Apollo 10 and 17). Unfortunately, the recluse Armstrong does not provide his personal reflections of such a groundbreaking event. As this flick confirms, even after nearly 38 years, the landing on the moon continues to be an awe-inspiring and breathtaking accomplishment.


The beautiful music for In the Shadow of the Moon composed by Philip Sheppard reflects the epic magnitude of the conquest of the moon. Composed for full-sized symphonic orchestra, choirs, and electronics, this soundtrack is heroic at times, and enigmatic at others. The track “The Eagle has Landed”, for instance, uses overwhelming Americana sounds that bring to mind the frontier mentality. On the other hand, “X-15 Jet” uses minimalist arpeggios that reveal the tenacity of mankind to understand the universe. The second soundtrack commissioned to Sheppard, In the Shadow of the Moon showcases his eclectic education and sensibility for classical music. A respected cellist, Sheppard heavily uses the ominous sounds of this instrument on his compositions and orchestrations. Overall, even though the soundtrack for In the Shadow of the Moon is not as majestic as Bill Conti’s The Right Stuff (1983) or James Horner’s Apollo 13 (1995), it still delivers a beautiful musical background for unforgettable images of human endurance and perseverance.


Lust, Caution - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]


The latest film by acclaimed director Ang Lee, Lust, Caution is a charged thriller set in an exotic-looking Shanghai, and takes place during the torrid years of World War II. This film tells the story of a woman who is swept into a dangerous situation with a prominent political figure. Espionage, intrigue, eroticism, and romance characterize Lee’s movie, which is based on the short story written by the highly praised Chinese author Eileen Chang. Featuring the histrionics of Tony Leung and Tang Wei, stunning cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, and incredible production design by Lai Pan, Lust, Caution is an elegant flick that brings to mind the alluring works of Kar Wai Wong.

Perfectly matching the delicacy and exoticism of Lust, Caution is the gorgeous score composed by Alexandre Desplat. Even though Desplat has been composing film scores since the early 1990s in his native France, he only came to international prominence very recently, with his work for English-language movies such as Birth (2004), Syriana (2005), Firewall (2006), and The Queen (2006). Desplat’s inspired orchestral compositions for Lust, Caution prominently use a melodic piano to underscore the drama and the romance, while a solo violin and accompanying strings are used to convey the suspense and scorching political landscape of the locale and time period. The musical duality of Desplat’s score is very expressive, features elegant instrumentations, and manages to provide a pleasing listening experience on its own.


Reservation Road - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]


Upon its original release, this film was celebrated as an effective dramatic thriller directed by two-time Academy Award writer and director Terry George. Reservation Road tells the heartbreaking story of two fathers and their families, and how their lives suddenly converge after a tragic car accident claims the life of a young child. This is a moody movie that deals with some of the darkest feelings from the human heart such as resentment, retribution, grief, hatred, and unbearable guilt. Featuring an outstanding cast led by Jennifer Connelly, Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, and Mira Sorvino, Reservation Road is a truly emotional flick.

Composed by the celebrated Mark Isham, the soundtrack for Reservation Road is as bleak and gloomy as the movie itself. For some strange reason, even though Isham has scored over 100 movies, he has never achieved the stratospheric levels of popularity that characterize Williams or Goldsmith. Still, Isham’s work for Reservation Road shows what a great musician he is. For this movie, Isham uses a small instrumental ensemble as well as keyboards and other electronic gadgets. Incessant electronic percussions, a sax, an oboe, and a clarinet offer an aural soundscape that conveys sorrow. Placing mood and atmosphere over melody, Isham delivers a haunting score that faithfully reflects the anguish and distress of the characters.


Superman: Doomsday – Original Soundtrack Recording [rating: 7]


Based on the bestselling series of comic books from the early 1990s, Superman: Doomsday presents the tragic story of the death, funeral, and resurrection of the indefatigable Man of Steel. Of course, as it was eventually revealed, this milestone in the history of the comic book industry was more a calculated ploy to increase sales than an artistic compulsion to explore a world without Superman. But nevertheless, not completely faithful to the original source, this animated movie tells how Lex Luthor’s LexCorps accidentally releases an intergalactic creature aptly named Doomsday. The ensuing battle between Doomsday and Superman reaches epic proportions, and culminates with the death of the quintessential American hero. Featuring the voices of Adam Baldwin, Anne Heche, and James Marsters, Superman: Doomsday is fun escapism if not much else.


The composing duties for Superman: Doomsday fell in the able hands of Robert J. Kral, who already had shown sensitivity for dramatic and action oriented scores with his work for the popular TV series Angel (1999-2004). Perhaps the greatest challenge confronted by Kral in scoring Superman: Doomsday was to follow the giant footsteps left by Williams with his unforgettable music for the original Superman (1978). To this end, Kral created a new heroic theme for the Man of Steel, which, even though it lacks the acoustic strength of Williams’ composition, it still delivers a musical punch. Kral’s score combines high and minor chords, and aptly balances action, suspense, and pathos. Quite unfortunately, Kral performed his music with electronics and synthesizers instead of a real orchestra, and the limits of the technology are often revealed during his more majestic compositions.


Things We Lost in the Fire - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]


In this dramatic film, Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), a widow, befriends Jerry Sunborne (Benicio del Toro), the troubled best friend of her recently deceased husband. As Jerry finds his way back in life, he also helps Audrey and her two sons to cope with their grief and confront their loss. Directed with flair by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, and featuring powerful performances by the leading stars, Things We Lost in the Fire presents a heartbreaking story of great sorrow and unbearable anguish, but also of immense hope.

The bleak soundtrack for Things We Lost in the Fire was composed by Gustavo Santaolalla and Johan Soderqvist. However, in spite of the alleged collaborative effort, the musical structure feels rather similar to Santaolalla’s Babel (2006) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). That is, the music for Things We Lost in the Fire is minimalist and mostly made of guitar snippets with infrequent harmonies provided by a small orchestral ensemble.  Lacking major themes and melodies, the lonely guitar in the score effectively provides an atmosphere of lamentation and sorrow. However, while the music is effective within the context of the film, those detractors who have questioned in the past the musical abilities of two-time Academy Award winner Santaolalla are not likely to change their mind after listening at his work for Things We Lost in the Fire.


Hollywood’s Greatest Hits: Classic Music From the Movies [rating: 6]


Arguably, the big problem with “Best of” compilations of film music is that, more often than not, we get the exact same pieces. Indeed, most of these collections feature nearly identical excerpts from John William’s Star Wars (1977), Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Miklos Rozsa’s Ben Hur (1959), Ernest Gold’s Exodus (1960), and Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek (1979). And even though these are undisputable landmarks of the genre, even casual fans probably already own the original releases. Therefore, Hollywood’s Greatest Hits: Classic Music From the Movies is highly commendable because it offers an eclectic selection of high quality film music that is rarely brought together in this type of compilation.


Hollywood’s Greatest Hits offers awesome film music that most casual fans probably have not had a chance to hear before. Some excerpts found on this outstanding 2-CD collection include John Addison’s A Bridge Too Far (1977), Ron Goodwin’s Battle of Britain (1969), Franz Waxman’s Taras Bulba (1962), Mario Nascimbene’s The Vikings (1958), Bronislau Kaper’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), and Nino Rota’s Roma (1972). Unfortunately, these are not original recordings, but re-recordings played by the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. And even though the performance of the orchestra is top-notch, some instrumentations and arrangements may sound a bit off the mark for those connoisseurs who are familiar with the original recordings. But nevertheless, featuring 47 tracks this compilation is likely to offer something new for everybody, and perhaps inspire the search for the original recordings. Personally, listening to the excerpt from Geroges Delerue’s Viva Maria (1965) was a true revelation to a beautiful score I was not familiar with.


The Nanny Diaries - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 1]


The stunning Scarlett Johansson may well be the only reason to watch The Nanny Diaries, an uninspired comedy directed not by one, but two directors, Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini. In this flick, Johansson plays the role of Annie Braddock, an aspiring anthropology student who has to work as a nanny for an obnoxious wealthy family to support herself.

The soundtrack for the Nanny Diaries is made up of popular songs, and quite frankly, it is thought provoking. Indeed, after listening to it, one wonders how a major film would be accompanied by such a lame compilation of uninspired songs. Perhaps with the sole exception of WAR’s timeless classic “Why Can’t We Be Friends”, all the other songs are not that good. As such, it is very difficult to envision why anybody would like to purchase such an insipid soundtrack.


The Ten - Film Soundtrack [rating: 3]


David Wain’s amusing comedy is made of 10 vignettes, each of them telling a story of what happens when different characters break each of the Ten Commandments. Even though it brings to mind the wacky situations and narrative structure that characterized Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), The Ten feels refreshingly original. As an added incentive, The Ten features three of the hottest girls from Hollywood, Jessica Alba, Femke Janssen, and Winona Ryder. Towards the film’s end, rather bizarrely, all the interwoven stories culminate with a climatic song and dance cavalcade in the inimitable style of 1940s Hollywood musicals.

The soundtrack for The Ten was composed by Craig Wedren, who also composed the music for Wain’s previous flick, Wet Hot American Summer (2001), and the short lived TV series The State (1993). The music is fitting for the film, and equally multifaceted. From an epic opening in “Fanfare”, to Latin rhythms in “Mexico” and country-style music in “Goof/Prison”, Wedren shows a noteworthy musical background and sensible artistic inspiration. Unfortunately, some of the songs featured on the soundtrack CD are interrupted with snippets of dialogue from the movie. Overall, in spite of its underscoring achievements, The Ten may prove to be a soundtrack that is difficult to be listened on its own.


 


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